A Note on Science and Skepticism

“Question everything.” If only Neil deGrasse Tyson would turn this elegant phrase on his own positions, especially regarding known historical fact.

I had the great honor of meeting Tyson at the 2006 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. He was incredibly witty, friendly, and accessible. We had a grand time discussing the possibility of life on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, while waiting in line for ice cream. For this reason and others, Cosmos was a series I looked forward to. So far I’ve watched the pilot, and more than half of another episode (there’s a lot of TV I have yet to catch up on; procrastinators unite…tomorrow). The visuals are incredible — they are the kinds of things I’ve longed for since Jurassic Park forever spoiled me to special effects. If only Tyson’s “polite” antagonism toward theism didn’t keep throwing itself in the way. Oh well. One day I’d love to meet up with him again over coffee and discuss science once more.

However, I bring up this matter to illuminate a larger point, about skepticism. What passes for “skepticism” today ain’t what it used to be. What it should be.

Anyone can make a claim about reality. But whether it meshes with what is already known is another matter entirely. Like Tyson’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno tarnishing an otherwise amazing introduction to the wonders of the universe, a faulty line of reasoning or a powerful and trendy agenda can throw a wrench into the gears of critical thinking.

Science is by its nature investigative. It is a fine scientist indeed who manages to put aside as much of his bias as possible, and draw conclusions based on what is observed rather than what he thinks “should” be there. It’s an ideal we may never fully realize, but knowledge is only gained when you keep reaching for it.

In other words, science as properly practiced has no sympathy for dogma or declarative statements that something is “impossible.” Nature itself seems to lack that sympathy, as well. Seashells have inspired possible modifications of military armor. Jupiter’s moons were thought to be boring, cold chunks of ice before the Voyager probes revealed otherwise. Soft tissue has been confirmed in dinosaur fossils, which surprised just about everyone. The universe keeps knocking our expectations off their fragile pedestals over and over again. I thought we would have learned our lesson by now.

Alas, the modern skeptic, rather than pay any attention to his creed and examine matters at hand with a careful eye, tends to arrogantly scoff at certain verboten claims even before he examines them. Clumsy ad hominem attacks and self-assured political grandstanding start to take the place of any actual care for accuracy. Oftentimes they can make a legitimate point (as in the case of vaccine safety), but follow a faulty line of reasoning. Being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

For that reason, I tend to distrust the conclusions of a self-described “skeptic.” If you call yourself a skeptic, I only ask you to please walk the talk. Send the hard questions in every direction, not only at your favorite punching bag. Remember to sharpen your own thinking skills, and remember: even those with a university degree and grant money can engage in pseudoscience.

My First Kindle Story!

Well, it’s finally happened. I got a short story published on Kindle! Boo-yah!

“Escaping” — Science Fiction

Fleeing invasion on a damaged warship, a soldier and a reverend face the question of whether someone is watching out for them.

For a measly $0.99, it can be yours! Click the picture to take a look. (And if you read it, feel free to post a review!)

This cover art is temporary. I'll find something better from a willing artist and post it as soon as possible.

This cover art is temporary. I’ll find something better from a willing artist and post it as soon as possible.

It’s a science fiction tale I’ve had in the archives for a while, and decided to finish it and put it out there for the world to see. It’s only about 2,000 words long, but I will add other stories to my Kindle library in short order. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this first entry.

Thanks for your time!

I have to give my most vigorous agreement to this blogger’s main point. NASA needs to reach Mars, and push back against the politicians that bully it and slice away its funding for their own ambition. NASA has to swing a few fists, at least long enough to get a manned rocket off the ground and on its way to Mars.

Cumbrian Sky

Right. I’m going to start this post with a warning. I’m usually a very tolerant kind of person, I much prefer negotiation to conflict and hate arguments. I always try to see both sides of an issue, and my posts here on CUMBRIAN SKY have always, I hoped, been fair and respectful to others’ opinions. But this isn’t going to be one of those posts. This one is going to be angry, and biased, and probably very unfair to some people, and will contain swearing. Why? Because I am just mad as hell about the latest NASA budget – which you must have read about, or heard about, unless you’re trekking to the pole or gliding down the Amazon in a canoe – and what it means for science, exploration, and the future. So, if anything in this post upsets you, or offends you, that’s fine, this is just…

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NASA in Decline

After the firestorm of creativity, innovation, and boundless optimism that was the Space Age, we have fallen far indeed. If we had taken the suggestions of people like Robert Zubrin and Bill Nye a mere ten or twelve years ago, we could have astronauts treading the surface of Mars right now, expanding our presence in the Solar System while pushing the limits of our technological prowess, and all the while feeding the basic human need for exploration.

Instead we have been puttering around low Earth orbit for a few decades, overlaid with the cacophony of talk about going to Mars without actually committing to it. And here’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, telling it like it is:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Interview

We have to remind ourselves that exploring other planets is the next logical step of feeding mankind’s collective need to go, to find, to learn. And if our government doesn’t remember NASA’s role and presence in space exploration, and forgets that America has the most experience and expertise, then stepping on another world is going to be so much more difficult than it needs to be.

If you lose the drive to explore and discover, life is barely worth living anymore. If you don’t feed it, your aspirations start feeding on themselves, like an Ouroboros serpent swallowing its own tail. Now is not the time to give up our lofty goals and designs for the conquest of space, just because politicians with stunted imaginations have such a hard time envisioning the need or value of what NASA has given us.

A Need for Nature

Image courtesy of Wyldraven on deviantart.com

Caught in the throes of the information age, with smartphones galore and the distractions of the digital revolution, it can be easy for someone to forget the intimate connection all of humanity recently shared with nature. Even in the West, where industry and technology found their deepest roots, there was a great deal of interaction and familiarity man had toward animals and plants, enough humility to kneel before landscapes and weather. And it was not limited to pets or what a man could see in his backyard. Children still had to go outside and play, since Halo and Skyrim were not around to entertain us.

For one example among many, look at how we view the consumption of meat. Decades ago, killing animals for their meat was a matter of survival. When your meat is prepackaged and available by the truckload at Safeway, on the other hand, there’s no reminder of what it is to take an animal’s life: grim, but useful and often necessary. So, the death of any animal, even to provide food or medicine or clothing, seems cruel and unfair to someone who has never had to kill something. And that is how some people begin to see slaughterhouses as concentration camps, and react with moral outrage when they are reminded of where their meat comes from. However, except for rare cases of cruelty to animals before their death, such a reaction is unwarranted. Hunters and farmers have a greater exposure to nature and know better than that. They kill animals quickly and humanely, and know that a butcher is not always a cruel figure. I doubt most vegans would last a week in an Inuit camp, where almost every scrap of food is some sort of meat or fat.

Another way we have been deprived of nature is the staggering number of children who have been raised away from it. Most kids have grown up with video games and sports for pastimes. Particularly in urban areas, only camping trips and the meager offerings of the local park are there to sate their appetite for any world aside from the artificial one, the one carefully sculpted to please human sensibilities and comfort zones. If you want anything more exotic, you’ll need to rent Planet Earth DVDs or watch National Geographic specials. Good luck convincing an overprotective parent that their children are impoverished by being kept indoors all day.

But the forgotten world of animals, foliage, caves, and mountains should always be available to them. Nature will always be with us, and has taken root in the very core of human nature. We cannot afford to neglect it. Its benefits and beauty and complexity are forgotten and unheeded when we reduce it to a few weeks in summer camp, or neatly manicured lawns and houses where any species not under our direct control is labeled a “pest” and rapidly exterminated.

My parents gave me a unique gift by moving out into a rural area of Colorado, and letting me go outside. Zoos and natural history museums (and when we were still in California, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium) were our family outings. Fossils and rocks were pretty much the only things I thought were worth collecting. (Well, them and old dinosaur movies, but that’s for another post) I got to harvest tadpoles from the neighbors’ pond, and regularly caught toads and garter snakes and horned lizards and tiger salamanders around our house. God only knows how many ant farms and fish I’ve kept over the years. Our household has been home not only to the requisite dogs and cats, but to brine shrimp and goats alongside iguanas and corn snakes, rats and gerbils, geckos and grasshoppers. If Noah needed to stock another ark, we could have done it for him.

That appreciation for nature is not as strong in my current life as I want it to be, but it’s still there. The springtime song of a western meadowlark still relaxes me like no other sound can. I smile every time I see a red-tailed hawk perched on a telephone pole and looking for prey. When a monarch butterfly or tiger swallowtail flaps by me, the world goes quiet, and I am at peace watching its color-splashed wings carry it onward. I relish the chance to see a thunderstorm raging above me, and don’t mind the rain at all.

Of course, when daily contact with nature is lost, one other thing you leave behind is a healthy respect of nature’s power, the raw fact that it follows its own rules. Nature will be taken seriously whether you like it or not. No, tsunamis and volcanoes and animal stampedes are no one’s idea of happy coexistence with the world. But we should face it: the world is not a tame place. Yellowstone tourists can get killed if they approach a bear or bison with anything less than an urgent reverence for the animal’s strength and unpredictability. Surfers can be crushed under the slam of a powerful wave. Hikers and hunters are more familiar with the dangers, and even they can sometimes find nature a lethal element to be in.

But there is still beauty there, indispensable and not meant to be forgotten. The kind of beauty that lends fire to poetry and emotion to paintings is always there, even in the most perilous corners of the natural world. And it will reward you if you’re willing to be brave and search it out.

I haven’t yet gone hunting, and my idea of hiking is pretty much restricted to a stroll around the local park. But what I have seen is truly beautiful, works of art more nuanced and captivating than anything a human imagination could conjure. Turtles floating serenely on the glassy surface of a lake while fish glide underneath; blasts of lightning throwing their glory over the plains in the depths of starless night; deer picking their way through fields with silent hooves; comet Hale-Bopp streaking its way across the heavens, bright as an angel’s wing, never to come back in our lifetimes. Those are the things I cherish, the things worth holding on to when nature and I embrace each other, like comrades, like lovers, like old friends.